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Laughter in the Dark

The History of a Town

by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, translated by I.P. Foote
Willem A. Meeuws (Oxford, England), 192 pp., £9

Shchedrin is known to English-speaking readers only by his great novel The Golovlyov Family, the most somber and pitiless instance of black comedy in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. Now, in the first English translation of The History of a Town, we see the master of political satire, for which he was best known in his own time.* One sees at once that this book gave Zinoviev his model for The Yawning Heights, his uproarious fantasy written at the expense of communism under Stalin and Khrushchev a few years ago; the dissidents take pride in recovering the old Russian tradition. Zinoviev’s fabulous lbansk (a double pun which means Ivan’s town but also Fucktown)—derives plainly from Shchedrin’s farcical history of Glupov or Stupid Town, in which for hundreds of years the bewildered and passive Russian peasants do what they can in a sluggish way to live with the violence and lunacy of their tyrants.

In The Golovlyov Family, Shchedrin was the moralist who exposed the selfdestroying corruption of hypocrisy: the hypocrite and blood-sucker ludushka cheats and talks his family into the grave. In The History of a Town, a town is at the mercy of its long line of ferocious or half-dotty governors and has resigned itself to being wiped out or, at any rate, to its fate. The fable is still admired and popular in the Soviet Union for its rich ridicule of tsarist rule. Shchedrin is approved, though he is mildly reproached for his faith in gradual reform. But there are many passages distinctly applicable to contemporary life in the Soviet Union. Shchedrin himself explained the main purpose of his satire which was to examine the question of authority and its relation to the ruled. His governors, good and bad, mad or sluggish, create permanent victims fitted only for resigned obedience; they are always incurably “guilty of something and due for punishment….” To the subjects their rulers are “an all-powerful and, above all, incomprehensible and extraneous force” before whom kneeling becomes a way of life. They enjoy “relative happiness and well-being in times of particularly idle or incompetent governors, whose acts of administration are rare or nonexistent.” The irony of Shchedrin is not baldly polemical; it is far more the irony of a comic artist with a superb gift of savaging laughter and picaresque invention.

Shchedrin’s real name was Saltykov and on the subject of provincial governors he was an expert. He was a man with three lives. Born in 1826 and dying in 1889 he was the highly educated son of a fairly rich landowning family. He spent the first twenty years of his working life as an extremely efficient and scrupulous bureaucrat. Intellectually he was the product of the reawakening in the Forties; he was radical enough to be sent into provincial exile, but his abilities were indispensable and he become a vice-governor. When the reforms that followed the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 were attempted, he left the service and went into battle as a prolific journalist and edited the powerful radical journal Notes on the Fatherland. When the inevitable reaction set in again and his paper was suppressed, he settled down in old age to write his great novel, the present book, and some Aesop-like tales.

He was known for his loneliness, his honesty, hard work, an irascible temper, and as a man of a natural liberal mind, but no friend of the feeble conforming nature of post-reform liberalism and no revolutionary. What is most noticeable in his fantasy, even in its wildest scenes, is the dryly controlled passion, the inured bureaucrat’s experience of political folly and his humane feeling for the bewildered common people. He was also a master of that ingenuity which is forced on a writer by the censorship; one of his resources was his use of anachronism. He got away with a lot by parodying early historians.

Shchedrin adopted the classic manner of satire by pretending that he had discovered in the local archives the continuing history of Glupov from primitive times to the mid-nineteenth century. He parodied the heroic style and punctured it with anticlimax:

In all lands there will be Neros, full of renown, and Caligulas shining with glory, and can it be only in our own country none such are to be found? It is folly and nonsense to think such a thing, still more to proclaim it aloud, as do some freethinkers, who fancy their thoughts to be free because they fly freely through their heads, like flies with no place to settle.

As his history proceeds the effect is of looking at the violent cartoons of Gillray or Rowlandson or of meeting Russian Yahoos. So the original Glupovites or Stupids spring from the tribal quarrels between the Headbeaters, the Born-Blinds, the Dunderheads, the Slop-eaters, the Whitefish, and the Pot-Bellies. Anarchy leads the Stupids to look time and time again for a leader, i.e., a governor who will impose some kind of law. They find him. He tells them that there is no stupidity worse than stupidity, and cries out, “I’ll flog you.” With these words, Shchedrin says, “History began.” A catalogue of successive ludicrous tyrants is made, ending with Ugryum-Burcheev, former regimental punishment officer, who destroyed the old town; there is another “of whom, as the governor now in office, I will say nothing. Rode into Glupov on a White horse, burnt down the high school and abolished learning.” (An obvious dig at Alexander I.) At the end of any regime, the Glupovites get overexcited and throw the opposition off the top of the town bell tower or drown them in the river; quickly a new period of bewildered submission replaces the old one.

One governor is found sitting at his desk speechless without his head on: he has taken it off and uses it as a paperweight. This causes dismay until it is discovered that his head contains a musical box or talking-device which has broken down. The device utters official words only; they are “I’ll break you” or “I’ll not have it.” This one is followed by a group of drunken or licentious women governors who are tearing each other to pieces, and here we detect (for Shchedrin has great fun with identifiable figures) Peter the Great’s daughter and the raffish Catherine the Great, known as Stockfisch, who puts her rivals into a cage where the populace spits on them. One governor called Ducka attacks her enemies by sending out a plague of bugs. There is a general rebellion, quantities of people are cheerfully drowned, the populace swear they are all purged of treason.

There are no more rebellions. The Glupovites henceforth submit passively to anything their rulers do to them. There is one pause in oppression under Governor Dvoekuro, a theorist addicted to surveys, who makes the use of mustard obligatory, and who, in the manner of liberals, writes “a survey of education” and makes plans for an Academy. He is too pleased with the notion that the surveys should lead to action on his part.

The idea is taken up by a more practical successor who builds the Academy but as a jail: “For in the case of a gaol you know exactly where you stand, whereas the temptation before those who write surveys of education is that they might have ventured to propagate it.” Shchedrin, the bureaucrat, is satirizing the mania for surveys by which the tyranny of Alexander I stifled real reforms. (In his own short time as a civil servant, Turgenev, one recalls, was put to work on one of these public surveys of the land problem.)

We run through a string of governors whose love affairs lead to riots and the burning of the town; one progressive fellow does not “brutally flog”: he invents “indiscriminate and discriminate flogging”—an advance in law. The people forced to grow mustard refuse to eat it: in short, “with great presence of mind [the Glupovites] countered the force of action by the force of inaction.” When one of their delegations went to protest to their rulers they knelt—and as Shchedrin notes, obstinately went on kneeling. There are governors who believe in enlightenment but with its logical corollary: chastisement. There are the fanatics for more and more legislation. One, Benovolensky, sees with dismay that the inhabitants are happiest without laws, and sighs to his mistress:

I cannot tell you what I might achieve and how much happier people would be, if only I were allowed to promulgate just one law a day.

The fantasy breaks into folktale. A gourmet marshal of nobility gets the notion that a governor smells of truffles and in a frenzy of appetite one day cuts off a slice of his head and eats it. (“The next day the Glupovites learned that their town-governor had had a stuffed head.”) But no one guessed that this was the very reason why the town had been brought to such a state of prosperity, “the like of which was unknown in the chronicles from its very foundation.”

Despite its farcical rendering of Russian history and the fun Shchedrin has with chronology, the shape of real events can be discerned. Alexander I can be seen in Grustilov as he turns from liberal-mindedness to becoming a reactionary mystic. Ugryrum-Burcheev is Alexander’s notorious minister who organized the peasants in some areas into military colonies. He had been a punishment orderly and was (although “at that time nothing was known about communists or socialists”) a “leveller.”

It was felt that if you take a man’s life in order to bring him into line with his contemporaries, though this may not involve any especially happy circumstances for him individually, it is still beneficial and even necessary, for preserving the harmony of society as a whole.

Ugryrum-Burcheev is a fanatical planner of communities. Each house would be “a habitation unit” and would contain two elderly people, two adults, two adolescents, two infants. People equal in age would be equal in size. People incapable of working would be put to death. The calendar is abolished. A group of houses would be a platoon, and, of course, each platoon would have its spy. There would be no God and no idols. Women would have the right to bear children only in the winter; otherwise summer work might no be done.

It was decided to pull down old Glupov and rebuild it in a clearing in the forest, but there Ugryrum-Burcheev was astonished by an obstacle: the river. The Glupovites watch their exalted tyrant in terror and are paralyzed as he decides to abolish the river. The people are forced to pitch the houses into the river so as to fill up its course. The river, of course, does not fill up but bursts its bank and the land is flooded. This simply encourages the visionary: he sees the flood as a new ocean and prepares to fill it with merchant ships and a navy.

Still, the new town is somehow built; but the Glupovites are ashamed of his success. That he should have said “I shall now permit you to be happy,” as indeed all of the string of governors before him had. So in the daytime the town is silent, but by night the people are secretly meeting in one another’s houses. Ugryrum-Burcheev installs spies—and that is the last straw. Even Nature takes a hand now. A black cloud appears over the town; the cloud bursts, the earth quakes, the sun goes out, and Ugryrum-Burcheev vanishes into the air.

History,” says Shchedrin, “had ceased its course.” Soviet critics hold that the storm is the coming Revolution; others, who point to the stated periods of Ugryum-Burcheev’s rule, hold that the reference is to the abortive revolt of the Decembrists in 1825. Surely the sober Shchedrin means that visionaries disappear into their vision, that the knowing if superstitious peasants are not without their insight.

Still this hardly matters, for Shchedrin’s satire goes deeply into fundamental conflicts in the Russian character and history. He is, as I.P. Foote says, one of the great Russian humorists and masters of the grotesque. Turgenev, who reviewed the original Russian edition for an English periodical, said that its prose was untranslatable, and Mr. Foote agrees that his task has been almost impossible. The speech, the images, the many meanings of words, the puns, the verbal verve cannot be caught; but he has done admirably in catching the dour irony of the resourceful civil servant who was also a man intimately moved by the contradictions in the Russian nature which he knew by heart. The “meaning” of The History of a Town must really be in that untranslatable prose which one easily guesses came shamelessly straight from the fantasies of the oppressed. It is interesting that journalism had trained Shchedrin for instant effect and invention in episodic writing. He nevertheless had to outlive his journalism before this book could burst out of him. As Orwell had to outlive his before he could write Animal Farm.

  1. *

    Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will publish a new translation by Susan Brownsberger this winter.

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